Sean Ellis has a huge reason to be thankful this week: On Thursday, he will celebrate his first Thanksgiving as a free man in 22 years.
The 41-year-old Dorchester native was released from prison in June after serving more than half his life for the 1993 murder and robbery of Boston Police detective John Mulligan, a crime that for more than two decades he has insisted he did not commit.
Ellis’s convictions were overturned in May by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Carol Ball, who ruled that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory information from his defense attorneys. The judge also found plausible evidence that three homicide investigators, who allegedly were involved with the victim in robbing drug dealers, had skewed the investigation and prosecution.
The state has appealed Judge Ball’s ruling, but Ellis was released on bail in June. In the five months since, he has confronted the questions that face most all those who leave prison and begin to live on their own again –-- a figure the U.S. Justice Department puts at 10,000 per week: Where to live? Where to work? And, as Ellis says, “How to be?”
The first challenge was finding affordable housing. Like many former inmates, Ellis was barred from living with his immediate family, since his mother, with whom he is close, is disabled and lives in subsidized housing. “If you’re an able-bodied male or have been in prison, you’re not eligible to live in subsidized housing,” explains Lyn Levy, founder of Span Inc., the agency that’s providing Ellis with transition counseling.
Ellis, though, is one of the lucky ones. A generous family from his mother’s church has given him a room “for as long as I need,” he says with gratitude. So he hasn’t had doors slammed in his face by landlords who’ve gained access to his Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), nor has he had to engage in what Levy calls “the shelter dance,” that is, assessing accommodations she describes as either “horrid, at the edge of acceptability, or almost OK.” Shelters are not viable solutions, long-term.
The next challenge for ex-cons is finding work, hampered as they are by CORI. Massachusetts offers some opportunity in this regard. It is one of 19 “ban the box” states that have removed the conviction-history question from initial employment applications. Still, the information can be accessed as the hiring process proceeds. By October, through his mosque network, Ellis had found demolition work, his first-ever steady job. Making this possible was the support of another family that paid for driver-education classes for him and gave him a car so he could get to work.
Earning his driver’s license was “huge,” Ellis recalls. His younger sister, Shar’Day, went with him and evidently alerted people to his story. And, he said, when he returned to the DMV after passing his road test, “Everyone in the room stood up and applauded.”
The joys of being free
Freedom, after years of legal setbacks (his first retrial motion was denied, as was his direct appeal and subsequent federal petition), has brought Ellis the obvious joys, chief among them relaxed time with his sprawling family, especially Shar’Day, who was three years old when he went in and is now a 25-year-old licensed social worker. Other highlights of his release time have been seeing the Zakim Bridge for the first time … soaking in New England’s natural beauty after living in concrete for two decades … walking the beach ... perching on an ocean jetty with a friend to watch the waves ... gazing alone at a pond in a local park. He has enthusiastically embraced modern technology, thanks to Shar’Day and others, who presented him with a smartphone and tablet, lifelines to a dazzling new world.
Until 2015, Sean had never written a check nor paid a bill, never even owned a wallet. Incarcerated at age 19, he traded life in one war zone – a neighborhood pockmarked by violence and crack cocaine use in the early 90s – for life in the war zone of a maximum-security prison. Those conditions and associated behaviors must now be shed and new ways found to adapt.
The biggest test
Asked about the biggest adjustment challenge he’s had to face so far, there’s no hesitation in Ellis’s reply: “Relationships. All kinds. Family, friends, women.” Make no mistake, 22 years “inside” changes a man. He explains:
“While in, you develop a way of being to protect and sustain yourself. And the way I learned to be worked for me – meaning my outlook, my disposition, my mannerisms. And now I have to let go of those things, because they have nothing to do with how you need to behave on the outside. You meet a different caliber of people outside, and you have to learn how to adapt.
“For instance, eye contact. Inside, you never break eye contact with someone you perceive as a threat. And you’re always assessing potential threats. You have to establish, man-to-man, ‘I’m equal to you, equal to the challenge.’ You must establish your persona – who you are. It’s unwritten – just establish power. And now, outside, you have to learn entirely different rules, and also figure out what things to hold on to.”
Insecurity grips him still. Right after his release, Ellis had difficulty sleeping, unable to shake lingering fears: “While in, your guard is up 24/7. You have to protect yourself, even while sleeping at night.” It has taken him time to drop this stance, to deep down believe that he’s secure. Achieving emotional and physical safety is what Span’s Lyn Levy calls this challenge.
At first, Ellis mostly stayed in his room – “I enjoyed being alone, not talking with anyone, taking it slowly, and only gradually making my entry into the world,” is how he puts it. One early question he posed to his host family was, “How long do people stay in the shower?” “As long as you want,” was the amused reply. Still,But the question was born of hard reality.
“In prison, showers are where you’re most vulnerable,” he says. “So you’re in and you’re out – quickly.” After years of that, luxuriating in warm water is now one of life’s pleasures.
Fears, and choices
Asked how long it took him to relax and feel comfortable with his freedom, Ellis ponders for a while, then settles on a milestone: “It started at the birthday party my family threw for me in July. I was playing a laser-light game with one of my sisters, and we were laughing a lot, and I realized that I could be silly.”
Being “silly” costs nothing, but it is clearly beyond reach in prison.
One fear that has proven hard for Ellis to shake is feeling threatened when strangers stand too close. In prison, everyone lines up; no one gets too close to the next guy, or it’s a threat. So how to adapt to a crowded subway car, where you’re jostled as a matter of course? Such experiences can be upsetting to ex-inmates.
Ellis encountered the proximity issue on his second day out. While shopping in a drugstore, he noticed two guys watching him intently. One looked him up and down for several long moments and then strode over and entered his personal space. His heart began pounding, and his first thought was, “Defend yourself!” Then the man lunged and gave him a big hug, saying, “Oh, man?” Turns out he recognized Ellis from the TV coverage and wanted to express his happiness and congratulations at his release.
Ellis left the store shaking his head, smiling. A totally new experience. A welcoming world.
Another major challenge is making choices. “These guys haven’t made a decision on their own for all the time they’ve been in,” Sean’s attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, says about the incarcerated men she has represented. “Someone else has opened every door for them. They’ve not turned a doorknob on their own, or decided when to wake up, when to eat a meal, when to go to bed, or turn out the lights. Not for one day. So when they’re released, they truly don’t know how to put one foot in front of the other on their own. They may be big, strong guys, but they’re terrified of independence.”
Indeed, the dizzying array of everyday choices outside can be daunting. Sitting in a restaurant soon after his release, Ellis’s angst is visible as he scans an oversized menu describing a bewildering array of options: paninis, tapas, crostini. What does this lingo mean? Sensing his paralysis, a companion recommends an item; relieved, he orders it.
Now that he’s up and running with a job, Ellis intends to begin community college in January, and Span has helped him apply for financial aid. His ultimate career goal is working with youth deemed “at-risk” (he prefers the term “misguided”) about life choices. His knowledge and credibility on that topic are hard won, and he has much to offer to kids who need counsel.
Here again, Ellis is one of the lucky ones. Unlike most inmates, who come out of prison undereducated and undertrained, he earned a paralegal certificate while at Norfolk, thanks to family support. He also explored his own “emotional literacy” through the prison’s Jericho Circle program and gained valuable counseling skills through Second Thoughts, a program that first trained him, then set him to working with young offenders.
In mid-October he spoke about his case to Brandeis students in an Investigating Justice class and afterwards he called the experience therapeutic: “In prison, you must disconnect from certain parts of yourself, and experiences like this give you the chance to reconnect those parts again.”
Asked what parts get disconnected, he says, “The parts that make you human. Your emotions, your compassion, your instinct to help a guy in need. Inside, to cope, you have to disconnect yourself from those things. For example, you can’t help someone who gets jumped, or else you, yourself, will get in trouble.”
He learned that lesson the hard way, having once spent several weeks in solitary (“the hole”) for coming to a man’s aid along with two others, who were similarly punished. And he recalls a time he bought cookies from his own canteen for a fellow inmate: “After that the guy started demanding cookies again and again. And I realized my kindness was being misinterpreted as weakness.” He had to steel himself and refuse.
Free, but not cleared
Ellis is not yet free and clear. He’s awaiting a final ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the Commonwealth’s appeal of the case. If prosecutors prevail, he’ll go back to prison. If not, they’ve pledged to try him again. It would be his fourth trial for the same crime; his first two trials ended in mistrials, with hung juries. All this looms over him like a dark cloud.
Moreover, he’s aware that not everyone feels as positively about him as his supporters, that many still think he’s guilty. “We give wide latitude to the victim’s family,” attorney Scapicchio notes, for certain members have been emotional and negative on the Internet. “After all, they lost someone, and they’re doing whatever they have to, depending on where they are in the grieving process.”
Ellis is not letting uncertainty or doubts hold him back. At Brandeis, a student asked him if he “holds a grudge” against the three corrupt cops he believes framed him. His response visibly impressed his audience: “I don’t have a grudge, because my personal disposition is that it’s too heavy to carry. I just want to put my life back together, and I can’t do that bearing a grudge.”
Powerful words from a time traveler from 1993 who, on Thanksgiving 2015, is grateful to be free, reunited with his family, and on track towards reaching the ultimate human freedom: the ability to give something back.
Elaine Murphy is a Senior Justice Fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. She created the website justiceforseanellis.com and is currently completing a memoir about her work on the Ellis case.